Expectations Can Kill You

I’m reading a very interesting book right now called Late Bloomers by Rich Karlgaard. It essentially makes the argument that not everyone is wired to be immediately successful nor are they wired to be successful following the standard path of high achievement in high school, elite university education, and then wonderful high-powered career.

Ironically, because of my first career and my elite university education I don’t really fall into the “we” he talks about throughout the book. But as someone who stepped off that path the idea behind the book attracted me and I think it’s a good read and will probably recommend it to all of my friends with kids because I’ve been firmly convinced for a couple decades now that expecting your kids to attend college and become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, investment banker, etc. is very unhealthy for kids that don’t fit that path.

While the book is interesting and worth a read I’ve been thinking in broader terms about the argument it’s making and applying that to writing. Because I think we have that same unhealthy mindset in self-publishing. Or at least we did when I started out.

There was this expectation that you’d publish a book and it would just sell as if by magic and then you’d publish a couple more and you’d be killing it and able to quit your job and make six figures no problem. And behind that was this idea that if you failed to do that you were somehow flawed or lesser and just didn’t get it. You didn’t have what it takes to be successful.

There are authors who disprove that theory–Annie Bellet being one of them who has spoken about it publicly. She struggled for years before it finally all clicked and came together and she found tremendous success.

But yet there’s still this expectation hanging around of immediate sales and reviews and praise that makes any author who doesn’t find that kind of success feel like a failure.

And there’s a certain scorn that gets voiced at times by some of the authors who’ve made it. Like, “Oh, if only they knew…I mean, can’t they see what they’re doing wrong? That cover. And that blurb. And, oh, don’t get me started on the writing. Who doesn’t know the difference between reign and rein?”

Those two attitudes combined make it really hard to push through and persevere for those who don’t hit right away.

Not only are you struggling with your failure to meet your own expectations but then you’re also faced with this niggling feeling that people out there are looking down their noses at your pathetic attempts to make it. And with self-publishing you tend to be failing in public unless you use pen names and don’t tell anyone about them.

So you either toil in darkness and alone or you trip and fall on your face in front of the crowd. Neither option is fun.

The irony is that an author can actually be doing pretty well for where they are. They can be on the right path and headed in the right direction. Maybe they just need more books out there. Or a better understanding of marketing. Or just more realistic expectations.

But the problem is that no one likes to publicly talk about their failures and struggles, so it’s really hard to see that. Which means to succeed if it doesn’t happen immediately you have to have this gut level belief in yourself that basically defies everything everyone around you thinks.

That is not easy.

I’ll give a personal example here.

I had a Bookbub on my YA fantasy novel a few days ago.

It bombed. By Bookbub standards it was horrible. They said to expect 2,200 sales and I had about 1,000. Not even half of the expected average.

It really hurt to have it perform so poorly. Because I should’ve been able to hit the average, right? I mean, come on. At least close? I looked at the book and thought there was something wrong with it. I thought to myself that maybe I just can’t write fantasy even though it’s my first love. Maybe what I want to write just isn’t what people want to read. I had some dark moments of the soul.

But here’s the thing.

That promotion, which cost me $700, is already profitable after four days. I brought in a thousand new readers to that series. I made it into the top 100 authors in teen fantasy on Amazon for two days.

It was actually a really good promotion. If I hadn’t had that stupid average number to set my expectations, I would’ve been thrilled with how it turned out.

So if you get into one of those dark places where you’re wondering what you’re doing and why you suck so much when everyone else is doing so well, step back.

Ask yourself how realistic these expectations you’re trying to meet really are. As the book I’m reading mentions, reframe your situation.

Look at the positive reviews. Look at the sales. Look at the fan mail.

Or look at what you’ve learned. Look at what you now know about your writing or the market. Give yourself a pat on the back for taking one step closer to your goal. And remember that not everyone succeeds the first time out even if that’s what it can look like sometimes.

A Reading List for Writers

I’ve continued to play around with the new Books2Read reading list option and put together this reading list of all of my favorite writing books. These are the books that are physically on a shelf in my office that I really liked. Definitely not all the writing-related books I’ve read over the years, but the ones I really enjoyed and found valuable.

There were a few that I couldn’t link to because they don’t exist in an ebook version, which I find strange in this day and age. But it is what it is.

I went ahead and created a separate account to do this because I have so many of my own books in my main B2R account, which means pretty much anyone could create an account as an “author” and then put together a list like this.

So, check it out if you’re looking for ideas on more writing books to read or if you just want to see how it works.

A Reading List for Writers

 

Ah, Life

I think one of the biggest challenges to this whole writing journey has been managing my ego. It’s one of the awful little side effects of having gone to really great schools (Stanford and Wharton). You’re puttering along in your life doing your thing and suddenly one of your classmates is appointed CEO of Yahoo! or wins a SAG award, an Emmy, and a Golden Globe for their incredible acting. (Both went to Stanford at the same time I did.)

Or another classmate casually mentions that they sold their firm with $10 billion in assets under management and are now taking a sabbatical to travel the world. (A Wharton classmate. And, ironically, that description may be too generic for you to even identify a specific individual.)

Now, I know in my heart of hearts that their paths are not ones that would interest me. I don’t look at them and say “that could’ve been me”. (Although I do think it would be fun to act. That’s one of those paths not taken for me.)

I know I’m not playing the same game they are. But when your peers have net worths in the hundreds of millions it can make it really, really hard to take pride in your own efforts. Especially when you know that you could be much more financially successful doing something other than what you’re doing.

A couple months ago a classmate at Wharton reached out and asked if I’d submit a class note about my writing. I almost said no.

One, because what I’m doing probably makes me the poster child for how not to use your Wharton degree. (You make your millions first, then you take up skydiving and writing novels. You don’t walk away from a good career without having paid off all your student loans to do those things, which is what I did.)

And, two, because as much as I’ve accomplished with my writing, I don’t view it as a success. Most of those class notes are people who’ve done something worth bragging about and for some reason I don’t feel what I’ve done is something to brag about.

Which is somewhat absurd. I have written ten novels and who knows how many non-fiction titles. And I’ve made a profit on them, which is actually saying something.

There was recently a thread on one of the writing forums where people were saying you should never expect to make $5,000 a month from writing. By that standard I’m a raging success.

(I think it’s a horrible mindset those people have when there are authors out there making $100,000 a month, but that’s another post altogether.)

But the problem is, I don’t apply the normal person in the normal world standard to my efforts. I don’t apply the “average writer” standard. Fuck average.

I apply the Stanford/Wharton standard. I look to my “peers” to judge my worth.

(And then I quickly look away, because holy shit.)

But that’s the thing. The people who’ve made it are in the news or in the class notes. No one writes in and says, “Since we all graduated I lost my job, declared bankruptcy, got divorced, and spent three months in a clinic for substance abuse issues. But now I’m living in a halfway house and getting by day-by-day.” Or, “Well, I got married, put all my dreams on hold, quit my six-figure job to raise kids I’m not sure I even like, and am now self-medicating with wine and Facebook while my husband spends inordinate amounts of time with his secretary.”

I have to remind myself that there are probably just as many people like that in my peer group as the superstars. Not that it helps. Because ego. I still think I should do well at whatever I do. Well being top 2%.

So, anyway. I submitted the note. With a good dose of humor included. And now it will forever sit there next to my classmate’s note about his very successful venture. Really, I think that combination pretty much says it all.

Oh, and for any Wharton classmates who find their way here, the skydiving comment was not in fact a joke. This is me doing a sit-fly over Taupo, New Zealand back in the day.

6- Me 2

A Little Link Fun

I spent the last two days doing Strengths coaching for writers and it was wonderful and awesome, but now I’m supposed to be turning back to the third cozy so I can release it on what would have been my dad’s 70th birthday. (Crazy to think about since he’s been gone for 24 years and he’s just frozen at that age for me forever.)

Anyway. Me being me, I of course am not actually working on finalizing the cozy. Instead I got distracted by Books2Read’s new reading list option.  You can go on there and create your own reading list that you can then share with others. As an author I have all of my books listed with them, but it’s not exclusive to authors as far as I know. I think anyone could go on there and list books and create a reading list out of it. So, for example, books you’ve reviewed or that you recommend, etc.

(Now that I’ve said that, I might try that myself, just for kicks.)

For authors, there’s also an option to edit your author page and provide a link to that.

So, here’s a page I put together for the Excel books.

And here’s one I put together for M.L. Humphrey.

Pretty cool, huh?

I’m not sure it saves more steps than having people come here to see what books are available, but it is a bit more slick.

 

AMS and Pricing And Experiments

About a month ago I decided to take my romance novels out of Kindle Unlimited. Not because I necessarily expected them to sell on the other platforms, but because I just grow sour on KU and how it operates at times and I think there’s a growing schism in self-publishing land that somewhat revolves around KU and I’d rather be on the “people pay for my books specifically instead of borrowing them because what the hell” side of things.

(No judgement here on anyone who chooses or feels differently and not saying that there aren’t authors in KU who have name recognition and a loyal fan base, there definitely are. If you’re making money at this, go you.)

Anyway.

One of the things I try to do when I advertise a book that isn’t in KU is to also only target books that aren’t in KU. I do this because I think it cuts down on the number of clicks without buys that my ad gets because I’m not attracting buyers who are looking for a title to borrow.

When I was going through the list of authors who’ve been good targets for AMS ads on that first romance novel, I noticed that many of those authors were priced at $6.99 in ebook. My price on that novel at the time was $4.99.

Now, if you were to go to any of the author forums and suggest that you wanted to list your romance title for sale at $6.99 as a self-published author, you’d be laughed out of the building. Who on earth is going to buy a self-published romance novel at $6.99 when they can buy a box set of twenty romance novels for 99 cents? The market just doesn’t support that. Maybe you can get away with $4.99, but $6.99? No.

Well…

It turns out there are some readers out there who will buy a self-published novel at $6.99. And that I can still run successful AMS ads on a romance novel that’s not in KU at that price point.

I’m not burning up the charts by any means, but the outcome I’m seeing is pretty much the same as when this novel was in KU and priced at $4.99. In the 30 days before I pulled the novel it had 13 paid sales at $4.99 and 21,000 page reads. (Keep in mind this is a novel that’s been out for over four years and where I only have two titles out under that name and the last novel was published two years ago.)

In the 30 days after I pulled the novel it’s had 28 sales at $6.99.

The only problem is that the ad doesn’t result in borrows/buys as often as when it was in KU at a lower price, so I’m not sure the ad will continue to run. AMS likes success and if you fail to hit that level that it deems successful, you get shut down.

I do think, though, that this highlights an important issue to think about with respect to AMS. There are a number of moving parts to running an AMS ad. One is how much per click you have to bid to have your ad shown, another is how much you have to pay for clicks on your ad, another is how many clicks to a purchase or borrow, and another is how much you make on a purchase or borrow of your book.

All four of those factors come into play in determining whether you can successfully run AMS ads long-term. It’s easy to bid really high and get visibility on a title. You might even get sales. But if you’re paying $1 per click and it takes 5 clicks to a sale and you only earn $2 on that sale, you’re very nicely losing yourself $3 per sale of your book. If you instead make $5 on that sale, you’re at least breaking even.

It seems counter-intuitive, but sometimes raising prices makes your ads more profitable. At each price point there is very likely a differing number of clicks that will lead to a sale and if you can find that sweet spot where the number of clicks needed is smaller relative to the income from a sale, you can increase profitability even if sales or the number of readers go down slightly.

Of course, you have to back that up with a good product, too, or long-term a poor customer experience will take you down. But that’s a whole other discussion…

I should also add here that when I looked at prices for fantasy novels that the price point I was seeing a lot of was $9.99, but I just couldn’t bring myself to try it, so even I have my psychological stopping points when it comes to pricing ebooks. (I put those books to $7.99 again because they actually do alright there and that is yet another pen name I am not actively adding to at the moment. Sigh.)

Survivorship Bias Can Be Interesting

I just finished reading Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s an interesting book to read although it took me an incredibly long time to circle back to it and finish it. But I did and I’m glad I did so.

One of the concepts he discusses towards the end of the book is the concept of survivorship bias. Here’s a link to a very long article about it which describes survivorship bias as “your tendency to focus on survivors instead of whatever you would call a non-survivor depending on the situation. Sometimes that means you tend to focus on the living instead of the dead, or on winners instead of losers, or on successes instead of failures.”

It’s a pernicious problem in self-publishing. Because most of the people giving advice now are the ones who “survived” to give that advice. And most of those people assume that what they did is why they survived.

But that’s not necessarily true.

Let me give an unrelated example. I watch the Price is Right almost every day while I’m eating lunch. And the way that people bid on that show is sometimes outrageously painful. I blogged about this on my old blog here. But basically what happens is that sometimes the person who wins the bidding round does so by sheer unadulterated luck.

This is the person who bids $1250 when the other three bids were $750, $1000, and $1500. They win because the price of the item was $1300 but it wasn’t a smart bid given the other three bids that had already been made. That bid shows no understanding whatsoever of how to maximize the odds of winning. Because by bidding $1250 that person gave away the chance to win if the item was actually priced from $1001 to $1249. And they have no idea that’s what they did. They don’t even see it. All they see is that they won, so they think they did it right. They don’t see how close they came to losing.

This happens with self-publishing, too. Someone will say, “I made half a million dollars self-publishing by doing x, so everyone should do it my way.” And at first blush that seems like someone worth listening to, right? They made half a million dollars. They must know how to do this.

But maybe they’re just the one survivor out of a hundred people who followed the same ill-advised strategy and they just happen to have succeeded where all others who followed the same path failed.  The 99 people who failed aren’t there to give their stories of failure. All we have is the one story of success.

That’s survivorship bias at work.

So if someone says something that doesn’t sit right with you, question it. Not with them, because they’ll get all snarky about their success and how you’re clearly an ill-informed fool to doubt them (ask me how I know). But look around. Try to disprove their advice. Find counter-examples. Look for the shattered failures to get the full picture. Remember that you’re talking to a survivor, you’re not looking at an unbiased sample.